Monday, April 6, 2009

Slumdog 1994

1994 was a good year. It was the year I flew around the world. I had always had an interest in other cultures, back from the time that I picked the new Japanese import Yoko to be my friend over all the other kids in the 5th grade. It continued into my high school years when a good portion of my friends were of East Indian descent. And by the time I had finished 1 ½ years of my college psychology degree, I was ready to take on world culture in earnest. So I started by signing up for the IFSI (International Field Studies and Internships) department’s semester in India. This required changing my major to anthropology and signing up for a semester of anthropology courses. No problem. Psychology was way more school than I ever wanted to do anyway. And then commenced my introduction to the love of my life: Cultural Anthropology. Studying what made other people tick, has always fascinated me. First I tried it on a mental/emotional basis, but now on a group/cultural basis. I took classes on Africa, China, Japan, Native American tribes, and many on India. Finally, it was time to head to India to experience the real thing.

But I wanted to make the most of my trip, so a fellow anthropologist friend, Rachelle, and I decided to purchase “Round the World” plane tickets. Our itinerary went like this: a week and a half in Seoul, Korea; Hong Kong; and Bangkok, Thailand; then fly to New Delhi and spend four months in India; then on to Frankfurt Germany where I would spend 3 weeks taking the train to Austia, then Switzerland, then France, then Belgium, take the hovercraft to Dover, England, travel around England and Scotland for 2 weeks, then fly out of London and back to L.A. As you can imagine, it was the trip of a lifetime. Two young 19 year old girls, gargantuan backpacks strapped to our backs with everything we would need for the next 5 months in them. They were so large, in fact, that we couldn’t fit through the bus doors in Hong Kong and had to push and pull each other, kicking, shoving and throwing ourselves against the other person to get inside the busses.

Finally, we arrived for our field study in India. We were a group of about 14 students plus our professor and his family. We were divided into two groups. “ The Goa Group” headed off to the coastal state of Goa to work in an orphanage and collect anthropological material. The rest of us, “The Village People” went down to the southern tip of India, in the state of Tamil Nadu, to be divided in pairs and sent to live in neighboring villages. There we spent the next few months learning about the native culture.

In my case, my hut-mate Nicole and I went completely native. We wore saris and salwar kamises, we learned a bit of the Tamil language, we ate rice or idly with spicy sambar and coconut kurma every day, and we lived in a hut with no running water or electricity save for one dim light bulb overhead that went on for a few hours each night. Sometimes.. We slept on our inflatable camping mats on the floor with a mosquito net to ward off the mosquitos (and roaches). We got very tan. We sponge-bathed behind a palm frond screen, under the stars. We washed our laundry by soaking it then beating it on a rock. We taught English to the village children in the evenings. We did pantomime with the local women to talk about our lives. We fetched water from a pump about 2 km away from our hut, carried it back in large plastic urns, one on our head, one on our hip (the native women could do it without holding the one on their head.). We went to the bathroom in what we lovingly referred to as “Poo Field.” It was the size of a football field. Bushes and trees lined the edges. Small footpaths criss-crossed the middle. As long as you were off to the side of the footpaths, any clean patch of ground was fair game. And because of the dry heat where we lived, within a couple of days, everything was dried, broken down, and returned to the earth. Pretty sanitary, actually. We learned to love the people, the fiery hot food, the constant sweat, the fascinating religions, the crowded buses and trains, and the satisfaction of living a simple life. And when life got too real, we took the 1 hour bus ride to the nearest city and checked ourselves into the nicest hotel they had-- $5 a night for hot water showers, flush toilets, beds with sheets, and MTV direct from Hong Kong. It was the most amazing and formative experience of my life. Hot, dirty, chaotic, crazy, wonderful, adventurous, beautiful, peaceful, amazing.

Here are some pictures: (If you're not sure which one is me, look for the most sallow, homely one in each shot)

Nicole and I: hut-mates.

Making chapatis

Sick of making chapatis, we make hash browns instead.

Our hosts: Alice and her son Balsamuel in front of their hut, across the path from ours.

Me, looking very native with my urn of water and sari. Turn the camera off so I can set this thing down!

Eating idly (steamed rice patties), peasant style.

This is our hut. And some of our students.

Nicole and Yoko Ono drinking coconut water. Not to be confused with coconut milk. Coconut water is the clear liquid in the center of a ripe coconut. Coconut milk is when you take the flesh of the coconut and press it until a thick, sweet, white liquid comes out. One tastes delicious. It's not the one we're drinking.

A Sikh Gudwara in New Delhi. Evidently, I was behind the camera. Or out shopping, more likely. Delhi has amazing shopping.

Dirt or tan? You decide.

Amber Fort, former palace of an Indian prince

Getting blessed by an elephant outside a Hindu temple in Madurai.

Indian traffic: Bus, moped, bike, elephant. Totally normal.

Andy and I atop a mineret in Old Delhi. Probably at Jama Masjid, a famous mosque.

Old Delhi, the view from the top

Fatipur Sikri? I'm not sure, but this is a classic example of Indian architecture, the delicate lace-looking screen behind us is carved out of stone.

And of course the Taj Mahal...

Thanks, Tiffany, for the idea to do a post on 1994. You picked a good year!


CaraDee said...

Great post Skinny.

Caras better half said...

Coconut Korma is the shizzle and so is Goa Trance.

SO said...

What an amazing experience! How cool that you got to do that. thanks for sharing.

Tiffany said...

Incredible! I'm practically speechless. What an amazing experience!

jennie w. said...

I'm so glad you mentioned poo field. That's my favorite part of your India experiences.

You left out the part about how you met up with us in Europe. Insel Mainau was fantastic! (Remember D. and that peacock?)

Kristina P. said...

I'm so glad you shared these! What an amazing experience!

rychelle said...

what an amazing journey!

thanks for sharing this experience.

Melissa said...

Wow. I just don't even have words. WOW. What an experience!! Loved this girl, thanks for sharing!

devri said...

THat is way cool chica!! I am 100%jelous of you now.. And thanks for clearing up the cocanut thing.. Nobody understands it much. (at least the ones I tell)

tiburon said...

I am sooo glad that you went and did that so I don't have to.

I would die.

For real.

veronica said...

That's way cool. Not many people get the chance to do that in their lifetime. Love the pictures!

L. said...

I'm SOOOOOOOOO glad you told about that, and included the pictures! That was a most INCREDIBLE blog entry. But you didn't tell about almost getting kidnapped in Bankok and sold into white slavery by a con-woman. Or stopping in Korea so my brother, the mission president, could give you shots. Or pouring paint over the 3 story high Buddah. Or getting groped by all the Indian men on busses who think all American women are sex-starved wh---s.

You really, REALLY ought to write a book! I'd buy it!

Shawn said...

This is so cool! What a great experience---one that you will never forget. And the pics are awesome!

Kami said...

What an opportunity you had! I don't think I would want to do that at this stage in my life, but maybe when I was younger like you were.

Appalachian Woman said...

Thank you so much for sharing this! What a wonderful opportunity, fun and a life changing experience!
I m sure this has shaped your life in many ways - and helps with memories on rainy days!

Anonymous said...

I say dirt and not tan.

MiaKatia said...

Amazing! What a great/hard/chaotic/fun experience. I am envious!

Mindi said...

i love you even MORE now. if that is even possible.

seriously, i'm a bit in awe after seeing those photos.